On a warm September afternoon, Tippi and Steve Denenberg and their family dined in the backyard of their Omaha home, but not on a deck or patio.
The family was celebrating the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, a joyous harvest festival that includes a tradition of building a small shelter and sharing meals in it.
Local Jewish leaders and families say there has been renewed interest in putting up the shelters, called a sukkah. Jewish people want to pass along the custom to their children, express pride in their faith and celebrate God's blessings during the seven-day holiday, which started last week and runs through this evening.
Families decorate their sukkah, eat and say blessings in it, and some sleep in it, snuggling up in sleeping bags and blankets.
In many faiths, passing along religious traditions to the next generation is important, whether it's Christians sharing Advent practices or Muslims passing along the customs of Ramadan.
When Jewish people put up a shelter during Sukkot — which follows the more solemn holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — it a joyful and powerful way to connect with their faith, and with others through a shared meal.
“They are looking back toward lost traditions,” said Rabbi Jonathan Gross of Omaha's Beth Israel Synagogue. “People are looking for their ethnic pride.”
There is also renewed interest across the country in putting up the shelters, said Rabbi Motti Seligson of the national Chabad-Lubavitch organization, a resource group for the Jewish faith.
Rabbi Mendel Katzman of Omaha's Chabad Center said more local families are putting up a sukkah than did a decade or two ago, either building it themselves or buying a kit online. He said the increasing availability of sukkah kits online makes it easier to participate in the tradition.
Other local signs of the interest include “Sushi in the Sukkah,” an event that started a few years ago and is hosted by Young Jewish Omaha.
For many years local synagogues have put up their own sukkahs. About five years ago the synagogues and the Jewish Federation of Omaha started sponsoring a “Sukkah Hop,” kind of like a progressive dinner where people move from one synagogue's sukkah to the next.
A sukkah is intended to be a temporary shelter, put up soon before the holiday and taken down afterward, Katzman said. In general it can be any size, although there is a certain height requirement, and it should have at least three sides, he said. Sometimes the sides are made of wood or sheets of canvas or woven fabric secured by tubular steel poles.
The roof should be made of a natural material such as corn stalks, tree branches or bamboo, and should open enough so that rain can come through and the stars can be seen at night, Katzman said.
The holiday of Sukkot commemorates how God protected the Israelites during the 40 years they wandered the desert after the exodus from Egypt, and the miraculous “clouds of glory” that hovered over them and shielded them from danger, Katzman said.
A sukkah represent God's protection, he said. But because the shelters are temporary and not fully enclosed, they also signify humans' connection to nature, and their vulnerability, he said.
Tippi Denenberg, 46, grew up in Omaha, and said that as a child her family never built a sukkah. That was because, she said, her family had become assimilated.
She said none of the Jewish families she knew put up a sukkah.
Denenberg said she developed a stronger Jewish identity during college after taking classes in Judaism and Hebrew. In a way, she said, it was like she converted to her own religion as she educated herself about her faith.
“I have slowly become more observant,'' she said. “Judaism is kind of a continuum. (My) idea is to improve with time.”
Denenberg said that when she and her husband got married they decided to make sure their children grew up with all the Jewish traditions, including building a sukkah.
Gross said that in parts of the country with large Jewish communities, such as the New York City area, it was common even generations ago for families to put up a sukkah.
But the tradition was generally less common in places with smaller Jewish populations, such as Nebraska, he said.
Jews settled in Omaha more than 100 years ago and many were escaping religious persecution in Europe, and they didn't want to stand out by putting up a shelter for all the neighbors to see, he said. But through the generations, he said, Jewish people have experienced growing acceptance.
“Now, people are looking to assert their identity,'' Gross said.
Seligson, the rabbi with the national Jewish organization, said Jewish people are increasingly realizing the importance of practicing their faith not just at synagogue, but at home as well. A sukkah, he said, provides a great way to do so.
The Denenbergs started putting up a sukkah about five years ago, before their oldest child started kindergarten.
They have five kids 17 months to 10 years, and the children look forward to putting up the shelter every fall.
The Denenbergs purchased their sukkah online. It's 8-by-16-feet and made of green sheets of woven fabric held up with steel poles. The roof is made of bamboo mats.
Assembling the sukkah is a family project.
On a Sunday morning a few weeks ago, Steve Denenberg read the directions, as 10-year-old Danny connected the poles and 6-year-old Sasha attached the elastic cords that secure the poles to the sides of the sukkah.
Michael, 9, helped put up the lights, which are a mix of round bulbs, and ones shaped like bunches of grapes. Michael also helped hang the decorations, which included colorful leaves and the kids' crayon drawings of the sukkah.
“It's more meaningful to them if they take part in it,'' Tippi Denenberg said.
The family set up a white folding table and chairs inside the sukkah, and spread out a tablecloth.
On a warm and overcast afternoon the family prepared to eat a lunch of salmon, and pasta with pesto sauce. Two braided loaves of challah bread rested on a silver tray on the table.
Everyone stepped inside the sukkah and Steve started the meal by saying a special blessing, as Tippi held 17-month-old Solomon.
The family then walked back into the house for a ritual hand washing.
As the family got ready to step back outside to the sukkah, a light rain began to fall. The rain slipped through the sukkah's bamboo roof, leaving droplets on the tablecloth, a reminder of how a sukkah provides a link with nature.
Tippi Denenberg said that even though she didn't grow up with the sukkah custom, she's confident her kids will carry it on with their own children some day because they'll know how it enhances the life of a Jewish family.
“You can turn things around in one generation,” she said. “The tradition will not end.”